Fundamentalism is the strict adherence to a set of beliefs, in most cases religious. The term is often applied to certain sects of Christianity, but is common to most World Religions. Often, fundamentalism is referred to in a derogatory way and is paired with extremism and its negative associations. Fundamentalists do no find their beliefs extreme, but rather basic or fundamental.
In Christianity, most fundamentalists are those who support a strict reading and following of Biblical texts. Churches considered to practice fundamentalism are those that tend to read most biblical texts as the undisputed word of God, which cannot be negotiated or watered down, as they claim many modern versions of Christianity do. Such churches exist in most Christian sects and may be promoted as “back to the basic” or “bible-based” churches.
As the Bible is the source of God’s word, there can be no argument in fundamentalism for disputation of the Word. Criticisms levied against Christian fundamentalism claim that fundamentalists often preference the Old Testament over the New, particularly when considering such things as homosexuality or the relative age of the earth. Also, less fundamental biblical scholars point to glaring inconsistencies in most Biblical books, which may be accounted for by suggesting that the Bible is the word of God as interpreted by the imperfect human.
In return, Christian fundamentalists would respond by saying that to question the origins of the Old Testament, or those of the New, is to question the word of God. What appear as inconsistencies are of no matter, because study of the Word will help us become wiser, as adherence to the Word will assure us passage to heaven. If an inconsistency appears, then we are simply not wise enough to understand it.
In one form of Christianity, Mormonism, fundamentalists advocate not only a close reading of and adherence to Biblical teachings, but also to the teachings in The Book of Mormon . These views are often thought of as extreme by mainstream Mormons because they advocate polygamy and blood atonement, in which those who commit murder must literally have their blood spilled upon the ground as punishment. Further, these teachings often outlaw Blacks from taking part in the priesthood. Most Mormons are not fundamental in their beliefs, and though quite religious, they find certain aspects of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s teaching abhorrent or at least inapplicable to modern life.
In Islam, Westerners often attribute fundamentalism to Shiites. However, Moslems in general do not consider Shiites to be fundamentalist. They point instead to Wahhabis, a group of Sunnis who are fundamental in regards to the strictest interpretation of biblical texts and the refutation of praying to saints or beloved Sufi leaders. Of great importance is remembering that it is only the “One God” to which people may pray. Any other prayers are polytheistic and against the fundamental teaching of Islam.
True fundamentalism in Judaism is difficult to find, since almost all Jews believe that interpretations of the Tanakh, or what Christians would term the Old Testament, are necessary to understand its teachings. Only one small group, the Karaites, do not interpret Tanakh texts by reading the Torah and Mishnah. One might class Orthodox and Hasidic Jews as fundamental, yet they are not so, because they rely on textual interpretations, even when their adherence to Jewish law is inflexible.
Fundamentalism also evokes certain political connotations. Suicide bombings and stockpiling of weapons in rural areas of America, as well as other countries, sometimes associated with extremist religious right groups, are seen as outgrowths of fundamentalist beliefs. Though fundamentalism can be associated with extremism, this is not always the case. Many fundamentalists merely want to get as close to their sacred texts as possible and have nothing to do with jihad or political extremism of any kind. It is quite inaccurate to tar all fundamentalists with the same brush as political extremists.